Boris Johnson welcomes the Commonwealth Games Queens Baton Relay to London. 'He emphasises that for the modern politician it is as important to catch the mood as it is to master detail'. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, knows this. He is a Tory and thus will embrace the core philosophy of self-determination. He will see limits to the extent to which each of us is a brother's keeper. He will discern within the public a belief that the state cannot and should not try to do everything. But he knows Londoners don't like the sort of meanness of spirit that led the developers of a block of luxury flats in the capital to erect spikes at the foot of their building to ensure the homeless could not sleep outside.
We don't like homelessness, but we don't hate the homeless. We don't like the homelessness problem, but we acknowledge it is our problem and balk against this hard-hearted attempt to hide it away.
This is what has made Johnson a formidable force in London over the past two terms. He doesn't really do the nuts and bolts of the mayoralty. To watch his performances at mayor's question time, when he is forced into the fine print of his job and often found wanting, is to wonder how someone with such superficial knowledge of his brief can dominate the capital's politics. But he emphasises that for the modern politician it is as important to catch the mood as it is to master detail. Those metal spikes might solve a problem, but they offend the city's sense of fair play and decency. Johnson can be a very Tory Tory – the persona he saves for his Daily Telegraph column – or he can be a socially liberal wet kind of Tory. A ruthless pragmatist, he will choose the path of maximum advantage in each case. His talent is gauging the audience and knowing which of the two approaches to choose.
London is one of the world's most densely populated cities, and yet there is a strong presumption that what space there is should be shared. The canny politician understands that. Witness the mayor's insistence that skateboarders be accorded their proper space in the multimillion-pound development plans for the South Bank. "The skate park is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London," he said, wrong-footing critics who assumed he would side with the developing forces of modernity. "This much-loved community space has been used by thousands of young people over the years. It attracts tourists from across the world and undoubtedly adds to the vibrancy of the area – it helps to make London the great city it is."
It is a great city, but just as much London is a narrative. Londoners shape the narrative as a template for their own lives in the capital, but also as a way of promoting their city to the rest of the world. Anti-homeless spikes and bulldozed skateboard parks run against the flow of that narrative. The mayor grasps that. He sees that big picture, and no one really seems to care that he doesn't see much else.